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Film and the Arts

March '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Spider-Man—Into the Spider-Verse 


Winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Film, this enjoyable “alternative” Spider-Man origin story follows a teenager who, after a bite by a radioactive spider, becomes another Spider-Man—just as the original superhero supposedly dies. Crammed with inventive visuals, a creatively offbeat script and enough humorous asides to keep parents interested while their kids are enthralled, this may be the beginning of a new wave of cartoon superhero flicks.




The film looks sparkling on Blu; extras include an audio commentary, alternate universal mode, several featurettes and a new animated Spider-Man short.


The Kid Brother 


The latest Criterion release of a 1927 feature by Harold Lloyd—who was, after Chaplin and Keaton, the greatest silent film comedian—might not equal earlier Lloyd releases like The Freshman and Safety Last!, but it has the writer-director-actor-stunt man’s best qualities in abundance, from spectacular sight gags and physical humor to unexpected poignancy.




Criterion’s release includes a wonderfully detailed restored hi-def transfer, two musical scores to choose from and the usual plethora of extras: audio commentary, new and archival interviews, video essays and the newly restored Lloyd shorts Over the Fence (1917) and That’s Him (1918).






Man from Atlantis 

(Warner Archive)

This 1977 TV movie—starring Patrick Duffy as an amnesiac man with gills and webbed feet washed ashore and taken in by U.S. officials, who need his help neutralizing a mad eco-terrorist—is typically silly stuff saved only by ahead-of-its-time environmental awareness.




It’s surprising that all four of these Atlantis movies were not released together on Blu-ray, as they were earlier on DVD; their initial popularity helped green-light the short-lived (13 episodes) series. Luckily for Duffy, another series, Dallas, soon came along. There’s a vivid hi-def transfer.



(Film Movement Classics)

French director Vera Belmont’s lusty 1997 costume drama is a terrific showcase for Sophie Marceau, who has never been more charming than as the title character, a dancing girl from the sticks who works her way up the social ladder to become a member of Moliere’s acting troupe and performer for the royal court.




Belmont’s sharp eye for political satire is more muted than in her wonderfully evocative 1985 film, Red Kiss—which also needs to be restored and reevaluated—but this is still a delicious glimpse at a bygone (17th century) era. The movie looks great on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a new interview with Belmont. 






Mary Poppins Returns 


In this long-gestating sequel to 1964’s Mary Poppins, Emily Blunt takes on the role that Julie Andrews is beloved for: the irrepressible supernanny, who comes back to the same family she was with before. Blunt is fine, as is the rest of the cast—Lin-Manual Miranda, Colin Firth, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, and especially the welcome return of vets Dick van Dyke and Angela Lansbury—and Marc Shaiman’s songs are tuneful echoes of the Sherman brothers’ originals.




Director Rob Marshall loses control over the final 30 minutes, but as family entertainments go nowadays, one could do a lot worse. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include a sing-along edition, deleted scenes, deleted song, featurettes, interviews and a gag reel.


The Quake 


Director John Andreas Andersen has made what could be called a thinking-mans’ disaster movie—at least up to a point. His hero is a Finnish geologist trying to sound the alarm about an 8.5 earthquake about to devastate Oslo and its citizens, including his family.




For its first two-thirds, The Quake is fun, even brainy stuff, but when the quake arrives—and there’s tremendous, and sparing, use of special effects that show Oslo’s destruction—character development unfortunately takes a back seat to disaster movie clichés. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are several making-of featurettes.






DVDs of the Week 

Divide and Conquer—The Story of Roger Ailes 


In her incisive documentary about the man who created Fox News and today’s negative political campaigns, Alexis Bloom charts the rise and fall of Roger Ailes alongside oft-incriminating interviews with those who knew and worked with him—including, unsurprisingly, women who describe his sexual indiscretions and harassment.




There’s nothing too surprising, but it’s put together so meticulously that it becomes a compelling if grotesque portrait of our benighted era.


Over the Limit 

(Film Movement)

Marta Prus’ gripping fly-on-the-wall documentary follows Margarita Marun, a world-class Russian rhythmic gymnast, practicing and participating in tournaments with an eye toward the 2016 Olympics. She seems a focused young woman, but her coach has decided that psychological bullying will ensure that she keeps that focus.




Marun appears to accept such behavior as part of her reaching for greatness—up to a point. Immediately after the Olympics, she retires at age 20, shows the ambivalence. A bonus short film is Johnson Cheng’s Olympics-set Iron Hands. 






CD of the Week 

Stéphanie D'Oustrac: Sirènes 

(Harmonia Mundi)

For this intelligently programmed recital, Stéphanie D'Oustrac is joined by pianist Pascal Jourdan for a journey through lynchpins of Romantic-era music by Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner. Although her renditions of six Liszt lieder are precisely phrased and she treats Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder with the reverence they deserve, it’s in the Berlioz, not surprisingly, that finds the French mezzo most in her element.




Both Les Nuits d’ete and Le mort de Cleopatra, usually heard in their orchestrated versions, have never sounded so elegant and intimate as they do here, only hearing D’Oustrac’s lustrous voice and Jourdan’s refined accompaniment.

Broadway Musical Review—Laura Benanti in “My Fair Lady”

My Fair Lady

Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe; directed by Bartlett Sher

Performances through September 22, 2019


Laura Benanti in My Fair Lady (photo: Joan Marcus)

Laura Benanti has said that Eliza Doolittle is her dream role: and this coming from a Tony-winning star who has already lit up productions of The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Wonderful Town, Nine and She Loves Me. But as she proves again (and again) throughout the delectable Bartlett Sher staging of My Fair Lady, some dreams do come true—for Benanti and for her audience.


Benanti is simply a splendid and sympathetic Eliza right from the start, nailing the feisty flower girl’s nearly impenetrable cockney accent when she meets chauvinistic linguist Henry Higgins, who takes a bet to transform her from guttersnipe to princess. Benanti beautifully embodies Eliza’s evolving personal journey from an ignorant to an enlightened young woman, cherishing her own values even more when she sees how the pompous one percent lives. 


Benanti does everything right. She has a wicked sense of humor and a proportional sense of tragedy; she has the feistiness to stand up to Higgins (a drolly superior Harry Hadden-Paton) and her own father, the indefatigable Alfred P. Doolittle (the agile and winning Danny Burstein), but also treats Henry’s mother Mrs. Higgins (the ageless Rosemary Harris) with respect and her own rich, besotted suitor Freddy (velvet-voiced Christian Dante White) with tenderness. 


And, of course, Benanti’s singing is peerless, from her joyful on “I Could Have Danced All Night” to her fierce “Just You Wait” and heartbreaking “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” She also looks the part, wonderfully and authentically, in Catherine Zuber’s exacting costumes. Praise is also in order for Michael Yeargen’s remarkably precise sets, Michael Holder’s exquisite lighting and Christopher Gattelli’s clever choreography. Lerner and Loewe’s classic songs sound sumptuous thanks to Ted Sperling’s musical direction.


Bartlett Sher’s fresh reinterpretation of Lerner and Loewe’s show—based on Bernard Shaw’s still-relevant exploration of class and gender differences—puts a 21st-century gloss on one of the greatest musicals ever. But above it all is Laura Benanti, who makes another iconic role expressly her own in a masterly performance. 

My Fair Lady

Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

March '19 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald 

(Warner Bros)

This sequel to J.K. Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter story (and maiden attempt at a screenplay) once again tracks a wizard, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a none-too-subtle version of an adult Harry Potter, and his attempts to return dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) to captivity after he escapes.




Alongside Redmayne and Depp, the cast—including Katharine Waterston, Jude Law, Zoë Kravitz and Carmen Ejogo—does battle with and against eye-popping effects and cleverly designed monsters. Two-plus hours of such exploits becomes wearying, but—as usual when it comes to Rowling’s imaginative worlds—your mileage may vary. The film looks splendid on Blu-ray; extras include on-set and “Unlocking Scene Secrets” featurettes and deleted scenes.


Fear the Walking Dead—Complete 4th Season 


The fourth season of this spin-off of/prequel to The Walking Dead is highlighted by the first crossover episode of the two series, and the 16-episode season consists of two eight-episode segments.




As usual, it’s crammed with accomplished writing, directing and acting, but I can’t help but feel that such efficient storytelling obscures the fact that there’s little purpose or point to the whole enterprise. But that seems a minority opinion.  It does look fantastic in hi-def; extras comprise four audio commentaries.






The Indomitable Bow—Mstislav Rostropovich 


Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich not only collaborated with the greatest 20th century composers—Prokofiev, Britten, Shostakovich, Dutilleux, Lutaslowski and Penderecki, for starters—but also performed many masterworks for the cello from Bach on; and that’s only part of his long but fascinating story.




Bruno Monsaingeon’s illuminating documentary portrait shows an artist and human-rights advocate fearlessly speaking out during the Cold War, as Rostropovich and his soprano wife Galina Vishnevskaya fell afoul of Soviet policies antithetical to art and humanity. Clips of him performing and speaking are complemented by interviews with colleagues and family members. The film looks fine on Blu; extras comprise his performances of Bach, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and interviews with the children of dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Rostropovich about their relationship. 



(Shout Select)

In Dominic Sena’s nervy 1995 drama—among a group of mid-90s “youthful killer” movies including Fresh Bait, Natural Born Killers and True Romance—Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis are a charismatic murderer and his compliant girlfriend on a road trip with unsuspecting couple David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes.




Despite manipulative touches, this is an effective and disturbing study, with top-notch performances all around—and whatever happened to Forbes? There’s a finely-detailed hi-def transfer and both the director’s and original theatrical cut are included; extras are a new Sena interview, archival featurette and cast interviews.






Krypton—Complete 1st Season 

(Warner Bros)

(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)

In the first season of this sci-fi fantasy series that creates an alternative Superman origin story, an earthling from the future, Adam Strange, arrives on the title planet to convince Seg-El, Superman’s future grandfather, that his eponymous home planet needs to be saved from destruction.




Despite the intriguing premise, the series takes itself a little too seriously, and it doesn’t really go anywhere unfamiliar or riveting over its 10 episodes. There’s a stellar hi-def transfer; extras are the 2017 Comic-Con Panel, two featurettes, a gag reel and deleted scenes.


The Vanishing 


This relentlessly downbeat, exceedingly violent drama shows what happens on an isolated island when three lighthouse keepers discover a cache of gold along with a body after a boat washes ashore.




Based on a tantalizing true-life tale, this prime piece of speculative fiction was directed with supreme control by Kristoffer Nyholm and exceptionally well-acted by Peter Mullan, Gerard Butler and Connor Swindells. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.


CDs of the Week

Bartók—Complete String Quartets 


Bartók—Piano Concertos; String Quartet; Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Concerto for Orchestra 


The great Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) wrote gloriously original music in all genres, from chamber and orchestral to choral and opera. These two-disc sets bring together defining performances of some of his masterpieces. The Arcadia Quartet, with the daunting task of playing all six of his expressive, explosive string quartets, makes its own mark in this mysteriously elusive but exciting music. 


The Orfeo disc compiles performances over several decades of some of Bartók’s most important works, including pianist György Sándor as the brilliant soloist in a 1955 recording of the Piano Concerto No. 2 and Sándor Végh leading the Camerata Academia des Mozrteum Salzburg in a stunning 1995 reading of the masterly Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (whose third movement is familiar to anyone who’s seen The Shining).

Off-Broadway Review—“Hurricane Diane”

Hurricane Diane

Written by Madeleine George; directed by Leigh Silverman

Performances through March 24, 2019


Michelle Beck, Danielle Skraastad, Mia Barron and Kate Wetherhead in Hurricane Diane (photo: Joan Marcus)
The women who populate Madeleine George’s amusingly off-kilter Hurricane Diane seem to be waiting for something, anything to spice up their daily drudgery. What arrives to uproot the lives of Carol, Renee, Pam and Beth is a literal force of nature: Dionysus, who—or so we are told in the god’s hilarious opening monologue—has decided to return to civilization to convince people that the earth is dying thanks to man-made climate change and that the best place to start changing minds is a cul-de-sac in suburban New Jersey.
As Dionysus—who takes the form of Diane, a butch landscaper—worms into their homes, confidences and, eventually, beds, the women’s souls are revealed and their inhibitions drop away. Cautious Carol; levelheaded Renee; irrepressible Pam; and needy Beth (her husband recently left her) all find varying degrees of liberation through Diane’s physical and emotional proximity.
For 90 minutes, George’s play gleefully skewers everything and everyone in its path, sometimes incisively, sometimes lazily—there are times when it skirts sitcom writing, but others when it makes skillful comic and even tragic impressions. And, although it simply peters out at the end, it’s crammed with quotable dialogue and a fearless way of destroying the realism of both her characters and her own play. 
Hurricane Diane is directed with equal parts vigor and finesse by Leigh Silverman on Rachel Hauck’s cleverly designed set. And the cast of five couldn’t be bettered. The women—Mia Barron (Carol), Michelle Beck (Renee), Danielle Skraastad (Pam) and Kate Wetherhead (Beth)—are magnificent individually and as a unit, with Skraastad as a particularly dynamic scene-stealer. And Becca Blackwell is the perfect embodiment of Diane/Dionysius, drawing every last laugh out of George’s robust and even potent words. 

Hurricane Diane

WP Theater/New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York, NY

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